Shadowy Overseas Organ Transplants Must Not be Tolerated

It is unforgivable if a suspect took advantage of people suffering from illnesses for the purpose of gaining profits. The reality of shadowy organ transplants overseas must be clarified.

The director of the Intractable Disease Patient Support Association, a nonprofit organization, has been arrested on suspicion of mediating an organ transplant without permission from the central government. It was determined that the act of guiding a solicited patient to a hospital in Belarus to undergo a liver transplant constituted a violation of the Organ Transplant Law.

The director allegedly acted as an intermediary for organ transplants overseas for more than 10 years. In the Belarusian case, he allegedly brokered transplants for three Japanese patients in the country in 2021 and 2022, for which he received a total of about ¥130 million. The condition of two of the three patients deteriorated after the operations, and they died.

The practice of such an organization mediating organ transplants overseas had gone totally unchecked until now. This is the first time that the practice has been dealt with as a criminal case. It is hoped that the police will clarify the actual activities of the organization and the flow of money in the course of their investigation.

The NPO director is quoted as having said that permission from the Japanese government should not be required for surgeries performed overseas.

On the other hand, the police are believed to have determined that the solicitation of patients in Japan and other activities constitute illegal mediations under the law. The police may have attached importance to factors including that there are patients with serious postoperative health problems and the growing criticism of shadowy overseas transplants.

The NPO is also suspected of organ trafficking in a case in which it mediated a live-donor kidney transplant in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. When The Yomiuri Shimbun reported on the allegation in August last year, five Japanese academic societies, including the Japan Society for Transplantation, issued a joint statement calling for the eradication of shadowy overseas transplants.

The prevalence of malicious intermediaries is due partly to defects in the Organ Transplant Law. In the present case, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry conducted hearings with the NPO only on a voluntary basis because the ministry has no authority to investigate organizations that are not authorized by the government as entities for organ mediation.

Under the law, cases in which organ transplant mediation is allowed are limited to transplants from dead donors, including those who are brain-dead. But the law does not cover live-donor transplants. So another defect in the law is that it cannot restrict such cases as the live-donor kidney transplant in Kyrgyzstan.

The government must urgently consider measures, including legal revisions, to ensure that malicious organ brokers are not left unchecked.

It is also true that many patients are desperate for transplants. While many countries face a shortage of donors, they are particularly scarce in Japan. This is the reason why there are many people who see their last glimmer of hope in an overseas transplant.

Even if it is difficult to rapidly increase the number of donors, it is immediately necessary to improve the insufficient medical system for organ transplantation. It is important to start with what can be done, such as securing personnel qualified to determine brain death.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 15, 2023)